Risk Management: Crisis Management in Action

by Ed Schirick

What would you do if your dining hall was destroyed by fire two days before campers were scheduled to arrive? If you've given some thought to crisis management as part of your risk management planning, you may have a quick answer. If you haven't considered how devastating and frustrating this experience could be or how to react if it should happen to you, read on.

Planning and organizing is key to successful crisis management. How well you anticipate and identify risks and solutions; plan your attack, including a back-up plan; organize your resources; and execute your plan will make a difference in the outcome. Being prepared requires you to concentrate on what you can control at times and under circumstances that seem completely out of control and hopeless. To have as much control as possible in a crisis, you must plan and organize yourself and your resources in advance. When the crisis occurs, you will be reacting and following a plan that was conceived and established when you had time to think clearly. Some people thrive on chaos and can make good decisions under tremendous pressure. But, most people can't.

A Fire at Camp

Consider our camp director in the above scenario. This camp director had attended crisis management sessions at ACA national and regional conferences over the years. He knew crisis could strike at any time, so he took the time to prepare. However, instinctively he knew one of the first objectives was to make sure people were safe. Fortunately, none of the camp staff was in the building when it caught fire. The director also knew instinctively that the camp must stay open.

Consider how things happened next. As soon as the fire was discovered, a call was placed to the local volunteer fire department. The director knew the fire department would respond promptly, but it would take precious time for them to arrive. He was confident the firefighters knew where the camp was because he had invited the chief and assistant chief to camp when he opened. The fire chiefs had reviewed the map of the property and determined there were no new buildings. The director also handed them a letter including the schedule for the summer and when camp would be closed. The firefighters knew the dining hall was the biggest building at the camp and that if they were to successfully fight the fire they needed their tanker truck.

Your Crisis-Response Manual

In the meantime, the assistant director had determined staff members were safe and promptly sent someone to the front gate of the camp to meet the fire truck and direct the firefighters to the dining hall. Our camp director had anticipated these agonizing minutes while the building was burning and the fire trucks were on the way. Water connections and hoses had been installed at all of the key buildings at camp and several staff members had been trained to use the hoses. These staff members automatically went into action spraying the fire with water at a safe distance. They knew they didn't have enough water pressure to put out the fire, but their objective was to slow the growth of the fire until the firefighters arrived.

When the firefighters arrived, the building was heavily engulfed in flames. They took over the battle, and the camp staff gathered a safe distance away. Without having to think, the camp director brought out the crisis-response manual and began organizing the staff to deal with the problems that were ahead.

Calls were made to the insurance agent to report the fire and to the food service company to alert them to the situation. The director contacted the local merchants with whom he had discussed this situation as part of the planning process. These individuals swung into action. Appointments were made for a big tent to be delivered and raised and for paper plates and plastic utensils to be delivered. The director had arrangements with a restaurant in the largest town near camp to provide catered meals until he could get a field kitchen set up. The director's objective was clear: he would make the inconvenience an adventure and turn potential tragedy into opportunity.

Squelch Negative Publicity

The camp director knew that the local media and the curious neighbors would be showing up soon. He dispatched a second staff person to the front gate with instructions not to allow anyone on the property. The staff had been told to be polite but firm since the camp was private property. The staff members were also asked to collect business cards, names, telephone numbers, and fax numbers of the local media so the camp director could communicate with them as soon as the situation was under control. These staff members were armed with radios so they could be in touch with the camp director and assistant director if necessary.

Campers were due to arrive in just two days. Our camp director knew, however, that once the story got out about the fire many parents would call wondering if camp would open. He contacted his group of trusted advisors, whose names, addresses, and telephone and fax numbers were in the crisis-response manual he carried with him. With this team of advisors, the director developed a script for staff to use when calling parents.

Calls were made to the parents of all campers. The script assured parents that, while this was an inconvenience, the rest of camp was intact and undamaged and briefly outlined plans to feed the children, indicating that it would be like having a picnic each day. Some parents indicated that they were having second thoughts about sending their children, but most were happy that camp would open and their children would have the chance to enjoy the much anticipated summer.

In addition, the advisors helped the director develop a written statement for the media that could be read or faxed to the various contacts as appropriate. The message asserted that there was a fire which badly damaged the dining hall at camp. It included confirmations that there were no injuries and that the camp had plans in action to manage the situation.

Your Insurance Agent, Your Friend

Once the fire was out, the building was a total loss. The next challenge was to clean up and knock down any remaining portions of the building that posed a danger. The director knew he needed permission from his insurance company to do this, which was granted with a simple telephone call to the agent.

The agent and an insurance company adjuster showed up the next morning and offered guidance on what was needed in order for the director to prove the loss to the insurance company. The director was reminded that he had purchased loss of income and extra expense insurance. While it was unclear whether the camp would suffer a loss of net profit as a result of the fire, the extra expense feature of the policy would provide needed funds to pay for the expenses incurred over and above the normal operating expenses. The director was happy he had purchased this additional coverage.

This scenario shows that planning and organization can help you prepare for any emergency. What kind of crisis management and business continuation plans do you have in place for your camp? Do you have loss of income and extra expense insurance? You still have time to prepare for the unexpected. Take some time before campers arrive to put your plan together. And if you do have one, take time to review it and make sure all of the resources and actions still make sense.

Originally published in the 1998 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.